The Philadelphia 76ers began the season trying to strike a balance with Markelle Fultz, starting the former No. 1 overall pick to help rebuild his confidence and moving him to the bench after halftime in an effort to actually win games. It took a month for the business of basketball to win in a landslide.
The Sixers pulled the trigger on a trade that sent Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Jerryd Bayless and a second-round pick to the Minnesota Timberwolves for All-Star wing Jimmy Butler over the weekend. It is a move that raised expectations for everyone in Philadelphia, except Fultz, who fell to a new low.
Publicly, the organization has not given up on Fultz, whose mental response to a physical shoulder ailment resulted in a broken jump shot and a waste of a rookie season after the franchise traded two lottery picks to select him first in the 2018 NBA draft. Sixers coach Brett Brown has spent a year honing his responses to incessant press conference questions on the subject, and this week was no different:
“It’s so much deeper than, like, the responsibility of being the head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers in 2018,” Brown said when asked about it in the wake of the Butler trade, per ESPN.com’s Tim Bontemps. “It’s growing him and his confidence and his spirit and his game, and helping him navigate through a completely bizarre period earlier in his life, where he’s trying to get through injury and figure it all out. That’s on my mind more than, ‘Do I play him 18 minutes or 12 minutes?’ It’s not that at all. It’s not that at all.
“And, so, along this path, we’ll figure this out together.”
Reading between the lines, though, Fultz has never been more alone as an NBA player.
Questions about his mental and physical condition resurfaced on Monday, when he double-clutched a free throw in the ugliest example of just how broken his jumper is. This was compounded by the news that he and shot doctor Drew Hanlen “are no longer working together or on speaking terms,” a development that occurred somewhere between Hanlen telling Yahoo Sports, “He’s going to figure it out,” and the trainer tweeting (and deleting) the suggestion that Fultz is still batting a shoulder injury.
Butler’s arrival surely ends the experiment of starting Fultz, no matter how coy Brown played when questioned about the expected lineup change. J.J. Redick’s shooting is catered to playing alongside three top-20 players who need space to create and aren’t as exceptional at creating it for each other.
Landry Shamet and Furkan Korkmaz offer similar benefits to lesser degrees, and T.J. McConnell is likely a better change-of-pace backup point guard than Fultz at this point. Rookie Zhaire Smith, battling an odd allergy of his own (this one to sesame seeds instead of shooting), will surely be heard from again.
The hole Fultz has been digging himself out of almost since the moment he was drafted just caved in on him. The Sixers can’t willingly accept on-court growing pains from Fultz any longer, not while they’re also trying to incorporate Butler into what they already expected would be a Finals-contending team. Fultz will have to shovel his way out of this on his own, earning playing time based on his ability rather than his draft status, and even if he reaches flat ground by the time Butler signs an extension with the Sixers, the role the franchise carved out for him if and when he was ever ready for it is gone.
You could almost hear it in new Philly general manager Elton Brand’s response — and the lengthy pause before it — to questions about Fultz’s status post-Butler trade, via the Inquirer’s Sarah Todd:
“I still think it’s the best place for him to develop because we love him and we care. He’s with us. He’s a part of us. If he goes somewhere else, I don’t know what that looks like. But for him to develop, it may be the best place for him still.”
That is one heck of a non-committal response from the GM of a team that drafted the 20-year-old with a No. 1 pick just 17 months ago. (We should point out that Brand was not calling the shots when the Sixers traded the pick that became Jayson Tatum and Sacramento’s 2019 first-round pick for Fultz.)
Unless Fultz becomes a floor-spacing threat instead of the player who has taken seven shots outside 15 feet (and made one) in seven games since the calendar turned to November, he doesn’t fit with Philadelphia’s triumvirate of stars. If the Sixers re-sign Butler and Simmons to max extensions in the next two summers, as they are now expected to, that transformation is the only path forward for Fultz in Philadelphia between now and the time Brand must decide on his future. The clock started ticking the moment they acquired Butler, and NBA pressure has been enough on Fultz without a timer.
It can’t help that Butler — the 29-year-old established star who embodies everything the Sixers wished they had drafted in Fultz (a player who can both complement and spell Ben Simmons) — is openly discussing the mental state of the player whose playing time and investment he just took.
“He is a talented young player,” Butler told reporters at his introductory press conference on Tuesday. “From what I can tell, a lot of things are mental. In this league, 90 percent is mental. If you think you can do something, you can. I know some of the people who know him and they tell me how great he wants to be. So, as long as he’s going hard and giving his all every day, the guy has my respect.”
We found out in Minnesota how Butler treats young players who don’t grind the way he demands, and you can be sure he won’t hold Fultz’s hand the same way the Sixers have this last year. The balance has shifted in Philadelphia, and a weight has been added to Fultz’s already burdened shoulders.
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